The Raconteurs – Almost Music 2.0

Toys - Pram

Well I mentioned that The Raconteurs announced the imminent release of their new album, bypassing all the media sorts who might throw our infantile notions of what is good, bad or indifferent into the mix before people have a chance to listen to the thing of their own accord. I didn’t really offer much commentary at the time because I was excited and, to be entirely honest, I thought I’d take the opportunity to be a news-whore for a change instead of a recalcitrant straggler.

David Bennum, writing for the Guardian, has changed my mind with what comes across as a rather sulky, childish whinge about the whole business. Some of his remarks, and some of the comments on that thread, bear answering because most of it seems to rather miss the point – not by a large margin, but by a significant one.

The most snide accusation, and the one where he comes across as a jilted teenager, is in the penultimate paragraph:

Only a cynic would point out that when a film is released without preview screenings for critics, it’s usually because it’s so dire that it overrides the dictum about no publicity being bad publicity. And only Bill Hicks’s hated notional marketeer would view this as a marketing gimmick in itself: “They’re going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, they’re very smart.”

Would Sir like Sir’s toys back, perhaps? In terms of it being a marketing ‘stunt’, this may or may not be accurate. Either way it is irrelevant. A new Raconteurs album was always going to be big news, however it was announced. This is only an anti-marketing approach if you can’t see past the limited tools of marketing in the year 2002. Nowadays this is just sensible. More evidence that Bennum has missed more than one point in this particular area can be found in the following quote:

It’s a shame that it’s only really viable for an act which, including as it does Jack White, already possesses both presumed financial security and an existing audience. If nobody had heard of the Raconteurs, then without pre-publicity, they might as well shoot the album into space as release it to an oblivious public, regardless of format, date, content or the best of intentions.

This is almost one-hundred percent wrong. In fact, it sounds like someone who didn’t get the chance to write about the Radiohead release but was determined to use those arguments somewhere, regardless of relevance.

In fact, the scenario he is describing as not being viable for an obscure band makes perfect sense. Whether by ‘legitimate’ journalists or amateur hacks like myself, most music criticism and almost all music chatter is online nowadays. As Vampire Weekend demonstrated, buzz is a fickle mistress on teh internetz, and can be gone in a flash. Their buzz-o-meter pretty much peaked at around album release time, so by the time the thing itself was in the shops, the backlash was already beginning.

If you’re a small band, generating a few weeks’ worth of enthusiasm among music journos, amateur or professional, isn’t hard to do, compared with the enormous challenge of making yourself a household name. So why on earth would you want whatever small buzz of enthusiasm you manage to generate to take place in an environment where people can’t act immediately on it and buy the album. In fact, given how elusive a quality that buzz is, why would you bother trying to generate it unless you had an album to sell? If anything, Bennum’s argument is backwards: only the big groups can afford the luxury of teasing people for weeks and making them wait for the chance to actually act on their anticipation.

The other thing it might combat is this: when I first hear about an imminent release it is possible, whether or not it’s available in the shops, that I mind find it on BitTorrent. I’d rather buy the thing, and I don’t like using BitTorrent, but the temptation is frequently too strong – there it is, I can listen to it right now, all I have to do is click! The longer illegal means have the market monopoly, the more likely they are to be used, I would guess. This is only speculation, but I think it can only be helpful to have legitimately purchasable versions available at the same time as the dodgy ones are.

What this whole thing might actually be, as Bennum does quite rightly suppose, is an attack on music journalism, which is a profession none too beloved of Mr. White (pinching the links from the Guardian). Whilst I may take issue myself with accusations of laziness, in light of the recent Black Crowes comedy, music journalists are not in the best position to be self-righteous about this at the moment.

But seriously, what does Bennum think being a music journalist is? Music is about taste. No amount of qualifications or expertise or insider privilege will send me to read the work of a music journalist whose taste leads me down blind alleys – see Q or NME, for example. So if his Raconteurs review comes out a week after the album was released and he’s had a chance to digest it, then how is this a problem? Why do people come to the Guardian for information in the first place? If they were scoop-whores salivating for leaks they’d be haunting torrent sites and music blogs.

Surely the biggest reason for generating pre-release hype was always to make as big an impression on the charts as possible, in the hope that this publicity would then add to the snowball and you’d sell loads.  As the truly hilariously out of touch Billboard 2007 Album Chart shows, charts just haven’t caught up with the explosion in retail avenues in the 21st Century, so aiming for the charts is futile.  In that case what do the first week sales matter?  Surely what matters is to sell a lot of albums over the course of a year or so and hence provide yourselves with an income.  For now, the first week push is old-model journalism and old-model marketing.

There are perfectly reasonable allegations of pretension to be levelled at The Raconteurs’ press release, which read more like a manifesto, but not particularly serious ones. Their points about the sanctity of the album format and a preference for vinyl are perfectly reasonable, but I can easily see how they could come across as a bit pretentious, depending on the absolutism with which they might be voiced. But ultimately, this is just a fairly sensible, non-controversial marketing approach, and one that I think we should come to expect in the future. The only really annoying thing is that it thwarts people who are obsessed, either through habituation or privileged arrogance, with being One Step Ahead at all times. That is our hang-up though, for us to deal with, and it is definitely not The Raconteurs’ problem.

Elbow – Any Day Now
Tom McRae – End of the World News
Generation X – Ready Steady Go
Doug Anthony All Stars – The Sun
The Holloways – Fit For a Fortnight

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